What You Need to Know About Nitrous Oxide

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By Elena Day

Election day is a month away and the Republican candidate has expressed plans to get rid of the “FDA (Food & Drug Administration) Food Police” and has promised to “End the War on Energy” or in other words, bring back coal and increase fracking. Both ideas are shortsighted given the ongoing contamination of our food sources with antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides and, of course, the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Note that coal and fracked natural gas compete for the same market. Increasing fracked gas supplies has resulted in decreases in coal production. This year natural gas will overtake coal as the primary source of electrical generation in the U.S. Overseas markets for coal are not as lucrative as China shifts from coal and India pledges to end coal imports by 2020. West Virginia is left with leveled, barren  mountaintops, debris-filled valleys and polluted streams. The state has yet to see the end and tally up the costs of the natural gas fracking boom.

It is becoming widely accepted that carbon dioxide and methane emissions have to be drastically reduced to slow the accelerated pace of climate change/global warming in our increasingly industrialized and populated world. Natural gas is composed chiefly of methane, which is 86 times more potent than CO2 in heating our planet. The oil and natural gas industry are the primary sources of methane emissions. Methane is leaked into the atmosphere throughout the natural gas supply chain. It is this that disqualifies it as a “greener” transition fuel to renewable energy. In 2015 the oil and gas industry was responsible for 29% of methane emissions in the United States. The cattle industry followed close behind with 26%.

More recently, nitrous oxide (N2O) has been implicated in contributing to higher global temperatures. A few years back scientists became aware that nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas” at the dentist office, was being released as permafrost up north thawed. The thawed soils were subsequently re-saturated with water from more permafrost thawing. In 2014 nitrous oxide accounted for about 6% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Although N2O is naturally occurring, human activities such as agriculture, fossil fuel combustion, wastewater management and diverse industrial processes are increasing the amount of N2O in our atmosphere. Globally, 40% of total N2O emissions result from human activity.

N2O is proving to be an even greater source of atmospheric warming than methane. One pound of N2O is the equivalent of 300 times of 1 pound of carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide molecules remain in the atmosphere for 114 years before being removed by a sink or destroyed through chemical reactions.  Most nitrous oxide undergoes photolysis to nitrogen and oxygen in our stratosphere. A portion reacts with oxygen to form nitric oxide and enters into the stratospheric ozone-depleting cycle.

Seventy-nine percent of nitrous oxide emissions are a result of “agricultural soil management” or simply humans adding nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers to soils. Emissions of N2O from agricultural soils were 5% higher in 2014 than in 1990. N2O emissions from agricultural soil are expected to increase another 5% between 2005 and 2020 as use of nitrogen fertilizer increases. One hundred million tons (100,000,000) of nitrogen fertilizer are applied worldwide every year.

Nitrogen fertilizer (and the Green Revolution of hybrids launched in the late 1940s) continues to be credited with providing the planet’s growing population with an abundance of corn and soybeans, wheat and rice. However, the reality is that many of the seven billion Earth inhabitants continue to deal with hunger and starvation. The agribusiness model that serves up all that nitrogen-fertilized, genetically modified corn and soy also is using more pesticides and herbicides to maintain record harvests. Too many small and subsistence farmers have been displaced, crowding into urban areas. On this side of the world we’ve witnessed the migrations from Mexico and Central America to El Norte and in sub-Sahara Africa migrants are crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.

In 1909 a German chemist, Fritz Haber, synthesized ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen.  A second German chemist, Carl Bosch, succeeded in doing the same on an industrial scale.  Both were awarded the Nobel Prize. Since then synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has displaced traditional techniques such as crop rotation, cover cropping and livestock. Monsanto actually sponsors clinics to encourage Midwest farmers to plant  “corn on corn” and skip beneficial crop rotations that decrease such problems as corn rootworm infestation. After all, for Monsanto the bottom line is increasing sales of pesticides (and Roundup) so bring on the insects.

A modern ammonia-producing plant converts natural gas (methane) or liquefied petroleum gases (such as propane or butane) or petroleum naphtha into hydrogen gas. The United States is the world’s third largest producer of nitrogen fertilizer. China produces over 30%.  India and Brazil are high producers and consumers as well.

It is acknowledged that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are generally overused. In China they are overused by 30 to 60%.  In the U.S. we are applying 11 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer to our farms fields every year. Only a fraction of fertilizer nitrogen is converted into plant matter. The rest accumulates in soils, is lost as runoff into surface water or pollutes groundwater. Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer runoff has resulted in the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In 2014 the Dead Zone measured 5,052 square miles.  In 2015 it measured 6,474 square miles, greater than the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Fertilizer pollution promotes algal blooms on the sea floor.  Algal die-off at the end of summer/fall results in oxygen depletion as decomposition sucks up available oxygen. Fish and marine life do not thrive in low oxygen. It goes without saying that toxicity within the Dead Zone is further exacerbated by the residuals of chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Corn is the Midwest’s mainstay crop. It is grown to feed cattle and pigs in feedlots and factory farms. In 2014 the U.S. harvested 14.2 billion bushels of corn. 13% was exported. If the Corn Belt didn’t grow so much corn there would be less need for nitrogen fertilizers.  There would be less N2O and fewer cows belching methane. The big agrochemical companies would not be making megaprofits on sales of ever more toxic pesticides and herbicides. I recently read an article about a photographer, Craig Childs,  who visited an Iowa farm for a photo essay.  Among the genetically engineered corn stalks of the 600 acre farm he found “an isolated spider, a single red mite and a couple of grasshoppers” and heard neither birds nor clicks from insects.

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And so we need regenerative agriculture, not geo-engineering. The latter seeks to dominate and control nature. The former seeks a return to healthful balance and sustainabilitity. To be continued…

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The Monsanto Tribunal is scheduled to take place in The Hague, Netherlands October 14-16.  Monsanto is responsible for the development of PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) that affect human and animal fertility; 2,4,5 T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid)—a dioxin containing component of Agent Orange; Lasso, an herbicide banned in Europe; and Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world. Monsanto promotes an agro-industrial model that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, depletes soil and water resources, patents seeds and has displaced small farmers worldwide.

On September 27 Monsanto announced that it would accept the $56 billion takeover offer by Bayer. The merger will result in four companies providing 59% of global seeds and 64% of the world’s pesticides.  Farmer’s will have fewer options at higher prices. Bayer’s history includes selling Zyklon B gas to the concentration camps to gas Jews. (Bayer was then I.G. Farben.) In the 1980’s it sold HIV-contaminated Factor VIII for hemophiliacs in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It continued to sell the product for a year after contamination was discovered. Bayer is a primary marketer of neonicotinoids that are causing our honeybees to die off. The Bayer-Monsanto merger may well be described as “the marriage of two behemoths made in hell.”

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